Disability Inclusion in ICT – An evolution through opportunities, education & continued training: A personal journey of Dr Selvakumar Ramachandran
This blog series features personal stories shared by the EPSRC-funded INPACT (Inclusive Practices in Assisting Collaborative Technologies) panelists, who will shed light on the challenges of disability inclusion and showcase the transformative power of accessible AT. By sharing their experiences, the panelists emphasize the crucial role of co-design in ensuring successful technology adoption for everyone.
Born in India, my life's trajectory was on to ever challenging path when I contracted polio at a young age and became paraplegic. Despite this, thanks to the support of my parents and India’s social justice model & affirmative actions, I started to believe in ‘education is the greatest leveller’. I earned a bachelor’s degree in Electrical & Electronics Engineering from Thiagarajar College of Engineering, Madurai, Tamil Nadu ,India.
Post-graduation, I joined Lasersoft Infosystems Ltd as a COBOL(Common Business Oriented Language, a legacy programming language for developing banking & financial software solutions) programmer. With its visionary founder B. Suresh Kamath's support, with a guidance of my mentor Ivor Ambrose , I established a technical training centre for individuals with disabilities and successfully trained 42 persons with disabilities in software programming languages such as COBOL, Visual Basic and J2EE technologies to develop software solutions for banking applications, who were then offered jobs at Lasersoft Infosystems Ltd. In 2004, a milestone came as I spoke at the Euro India conference about Higher Technical Education for People with disabilities, advocating for exclusive technical training centres.
In 2008, my academic pursuits led me to Sweden for an MSc in Software Engineering from Blekinge Tekniska Hogskola, and later to Italy for a PhD in Information Science from University of Rome – Tor Vergata. I graduated with Con Lode. 2012 brought a notable recognition, the Google Scholarship for people with disabilities, appreciating my contributions to Computer Science.
After earning the PhD, I have secured a position at University of Sunderland as a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) associate, and seconded to a Durham based company to support their state-of-the art product at its early stages. KTP is a three-way partnership between a University, business and Innovate UK. In 2018, thanks to the support Conn Crawford & Xavier Priem (Director bei EUREKA CELTIC-NEXT CLUSTER), who both believe in bridging the digital divide and providing the opportunities,
recruited me in to the a high profile team at the Northeast Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP) for the 5G initiatives in the Northeast England region.
Thanks to a great support from Dr Sepideh Chakaveh, now I am contributing as a tutor for her courses in software engineering, data science and AI at University of Oxford (Department of Continuing Education).
Being in academia, governmental research initiatives of next generation emerging technologies for about three years had given me enough knowledge, experience, confidence & motivation to segue into a next phase of my journey – becoming an innovator. It also reiterated my strong belief that, as much as ‘knowledge earning’ is important, ‘opportunities’ are also important to bridge the digital divide for disability inclusion in ICT. This time I was a beneficiary of the opportunity given to me.
I co-founded Kerckhoffs Ltd (UK) and Eyemmersive, Inc (USA) with my wife Vijayalakshmi (VJ), striving to bridge the digital divide through inclusive VR-based accessible tourism (Eyemmersive) and VR-based edutainment platform for children with special educational need (TeenyWeenyVR). Each transition, supported by family, mentors, the community and of course the social justice measures of the respective countries where I lived, enriched my voice in the ICT domain, emphasizing the essence of education and inclusive technology in transcending physical and digital barriers.
Knowledge sharing is an important aspect of bridging digital divide, I have found an opportunity to be a tutor at University of Oxford at Continuing Education Department and being there for the last 4 years. In my personal thoughts and with my experience; knowledge earning, opportunities and knowledge sharing makes the trinity that would help to reduce the gap of digital divide in ICT inclusion.
My journey from overcoming personal physical challenges to achieving academic and professional excellence in the tech realm showcases a unique narrative of resilience and ambition. With firsthand experience of disability, I bring an authentic perspective to the ICT domain, championing inclusivity through ventures like Kerckhoffs Ltd and Eyemmersive, Inc. My advocacy, demonstrated as early as
through participating in the 2004 EuroIndia conference, along with the successful initiatives to provide technical training for individuals with disabilities, makes me a distinctive voice for disability inclusion in ICT, embodying a blend of lived experience, technical expertise, and a proven commitment to fostering inclusivity.
In my life, ICT is a beacon of empowerment and inclusivity. As a wheelchair user, digital tools bridge the physical world's limitations, enabling professional endeavours in VR-based tourism and edutainment. For my autistic son - James, digital platforms are not just tools but windows to learning and communication, adapting to his unique needs. My work in VR further echoes ICT's potential, opening up new realms of experience and learning for individuals with disabilities. Every day, ICT proves to be not just a tool, but an extension of capabilities, fostering a realm of possibilities for me, my son, and many others.
Accessibility and disability inclusion in ICT mean creating equal chances for everyone, including people with disabilities. My personal and family experiences with disability and neurodiversity show the need for this. Including different perspectives leads to new ideas. By involving the 15% of the world's population who are disabled, we make sure they can both contribute to and benefit from technology. My work in VR-based tourism is an example, helping both disabled and non-disabled people explore places virtually. This shows that making ICT inclusive helps everyone, showing more of what's possible and for whom it's possible.
Recognizing the value of individuals with disabilities or neurodiversity enriches the ICT domain. It's not merely about accommodation but fostering a sense of belonging. Empathy is crucial in understanding unique needs, paving the way for a level playing field. Co-creation, the ethos of "for us, by us," empowers people with disabilities to shape the digital solutions they use. Bridging the physical world, digital world, and the emerging metaverse, we create seamless interactions for all, where inclusivity isn't an afterthought but a primary design principle, illustrating the boundless potential when diverse minds converge in ICT.
The 'digital divide' manifests in multiple dimensions, both personally and within my community. Despite my educational prowess, certain digital platforms lack the inclusivity needed for seamless navigation, emphasizing the necessity for inclusive digital tools, a reality further underscored by my son's learning journey with autism.
Addressing these challenges calls for a paradigm shift where individuals with disabilities are not just passive consumers but active contributors in the ICT domain. This entails not only empowering disabled individuals through education and training on emerging technologies but also fostering an environment where they are integral in the creation and development of these technologies. The ethos of co-creation—'for us, by us'—should be at the forefront of ICT research and innovation.
Further, affirmative actions are pivotal when disabled or neurodiverse individuals seek grants for their innovations and research, ensuring a level playing field. My ventures in VR-based tourism exemplify how inclusivity in technology design benefits not just individuals with disabilities, but society at large.
A more inclusive ICT realm, driven by diverse perspectives, would significantly narrow the digital divide, creating a ripple effect of benefits. As more disabled individuals engage in ICT, the closer we inch towards a world where digital inclusivity is the norm, not the exception. Through collective efforts, fostering empathy, and recognizing the value of diverse perspectives in ICT, we pave the way for a more accessible digital realm, ensuring the challenges faced today are not the hurdles of tomorrow.